Congratulations to Gio Clairval and Erin Stocks for their mesmerising tale of witchcraft, witchtrials, demons, and the love of one rope for one woman...
‘Hempish Love’ is this issue’s ‘Editor’s Choice’ story! We were impressed and enchanted by this tale’s unique narrator and original idea, as well as the authors’ confident, rich and vivid storytelling. Here’s a sneak peek (full story can be read in Polluto #9 ¾: Witchfinders vs The Evil Red).
I never wanted to be an executioner. My maker twisted me with habile hands, and as though it weren't enough, he twisted me some more until I became the perfect tool for the cruellest tasks. Maybe, if a fair woman had caressed me, singing words of love, I would have grown into something peaceful, I would have held flowers or led white foals to the water. Instead, here I am, hanging from a hook in this windowless chamber, ready to imprison wrists and shake limbs until my victims confess imaginary deeds. After thirty years spent performing the strappado, I wish my body unravelled, but when I appear to be tired my master strokes me with beeswax to soothe me, and I am like new: the perfect rope to extort false confessions.
Oh, yes, I wanted to die, my dear Polletto, until I saw the female of my dreams. I spied her first this morning as I hung from my ring fixed to the ceiling: a Dominican friar called Guido burst into the forensic vicar's adjacent office, towing Gostanza behind him.
He said, "Vicar, this woman slaughtered a new-born babe!"
The magistrate looked up from his codex. "Do you have proof of this, Fra' Guido?"
The good Dominican bowed. "Early this morning, I was walking across the Piazzetta Del Casseto when Gostanza came out of a house, her hands overflowing with rue and vervain, baskets dangling from her forearms. The incense of moscata walnut and pumpkin clung to her hair unbound and flowing like a young girl's mane despite grey streaks. I offered aid, and she allowed me to relieve her of two baskets.
"'Was that Mona Astrea's abode?' I asked. As I balanced the baskets, bottles clinked together with ill-fated chimes. 'How went the birth?'
"'It went well.' But a frown creased Gostanza's features. At the moment, I did not understand why, but a suspicion gnawed at my heart. I yanked a bottle out and unstoppered it. I was right, vicar! Concoctions smelling like oil of bartram, crushed cloves, madreselva and betonica herbs . . . all ingredients used for unholy spells!
"Then the devilish woman flipped open the lid of the third basket. 'Accept this offer to quench your hunger,' she said in a sly tone. 'Duck baked with prunes in tuber oil.'
"The aroma of roast bird tickled my nostrils. No sooner had she placed a palatable morsel between my lips than my senses fled. When I regained consciousness, I was alone in a mossy alley, slumped against a wall. I stumbled back to Mona Astrea's house, following a worrisome inspiration.
"Astrea lounged upstairs, her belly slack with recent birth. The maga Gostanza, lips and hands stained red, leaned over a cradle. Inside it, a babe, pale and still. She had killed it!
"I suffered kicks and scratches," the friar concluded, "as I dragged Gostanza out of Astrea's abode and up the hill to this Palazzo."
The accused's eyes shone like little suns. Dried blood marred the corners of her mouth.
Upon hearing the friar's words, the soldiers who stood in the audience hall grimaced, whereas I died to taste such a woman—one of the evilest suspects ever. You see, Polletto, I've always wanted to torment an accused that had actually done something bad.
Guido bowed again, and from my vantage I noticed sweat beading on the friar's forehead. Now, the sweating could have been caused by the unseasonable heat, couldn't it?
The forensic vicar then sent for the inquisitor of Florence, Dionigi da Costacciaro. When the brown-robed Franciscan arrived, my master the executioner brought the accused before him, in this same chamber, my home. I was yanked from my perch, and laced twice around the witch's delicate wrist bones. My braided cords shivered in ecstasy. I wondered whether Guido's accusations were grounded indeed, for her skin had the texture of guilt.
Read more in this issue of Polluto.